The South African Government has drastically reduced its defence budget since 1991, as the threat of large scale war with the country's neighbors dissipated and the liberation struggle moved to its successful conclusion. In 1989 South Africa had been spending nearly 4.5 percent of its GDP on defence; the current expenditure under this head stands at only 1.2 percent of GDP. This begs the questions of whether the government has reduced defence expenditure too drastically, and whether all the implications of this reduction have been taken into account.
Although at the end of the 1980s South Africa's defence budget was high as a proportion of economic output, the trend towards militarisation, noted by many observers in analysing South Africa's apartheid era spending, is not borne out in global comparisons.
Of 144 countries surveyed by the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1989, South Africa ranked 13th in total military expenditure, 44th in military spending as a percentage of gross national product, and 63rd in military spending as a percentage of total government spending. South Africa also ranked 49th in the size of its armed forces and only 103rd in terms of the size of armed forces in relation to population.
The current budget allocation of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), as a percentage of GDP, is inadequate to ensure that the SANDF can effectively address its current operational needs. The South African government currently spends less than 5 cents out of every rand of total budgeted expenditure on defence.
Even if the new arms package ensures that the SANDF has more firepower and mobility than ever before, neither the Air Force nor the Navy are provided the necessary funding by Government to ensure that they are able to operate their new ships and aircraft at a desirable operational level. The Air Force is short of pilots and technicians, and a quarter of the SANDF's critical skilled positions are vacant.
The defence budget for the 2010/2011 financial year is about R30,7 billion. That is R2 billion less than the Department of Finance said it would allocate to the Department of Defence in the mini-budget presented to parliament late last year. Just before the start of the financial year the Department of Defence stated that it was nearly R7.3 billion underfunded. That means, in effect, that the SANDF is nearly 24 percent underfunded.
With the current budget the Navy would only be able to deploy its vessels at sea for only 23 days a year. Taking into consideration South Africa's extensive coastline this implies that on average the Navy could perhaps use its new frigates to patrol South Africa's coast and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for 92 days of the year.
The situation for the Air Force is even worse. The only 550 flight hours have been allocated for the new Gripen fighters this year, less than half the optimal time. The South African Army also faces several problems. Most of its equipment dates back to the 1970s and 1980s and needs to be replaced. It is also struggling with maintenance and most of its equipment is either unserviceable or in storage.
In 2008 the Department of Defence recommended to parliament that its budget be increased to 1.7 percent of GDP to ensure that the SANDF could address these and other shortcomings. Fears that increasing the defence budget by only 0.5 percent of GDP would lead to the militarisation of South Africa are ludicrous. Nor would the diversion of these funds from other departments have a detrimental effect on service and social delivery as the latter already struggle to spend their allocated funding effectively. Far from constituting a threat to the region, a more effective SANDF would be better able to acquit itself of essential tasks on Africa's behalf.
The allocation of the current defence budget is also a matter of concern. Almost 40 percent of the budget is allocated to the compensation of employees, despite these being, at entry level, the lowest paid of South Africa's public servants. This leaves little for training and exercises or for operations such as peacekeeping or the maintenance of public order.
Peacekeeping missions in Africa by South African military forces are becoming a key factor for South Africa's foreign and strategic policy. Currently South Africa has nearly 4 500 military personnel deployed on various peace missions all over Africa. This is anything but a "passing engagement" for South Africa. In its long-term planning the SANDF failed to anticipate its current commitment towards peacekeeping and the current defence budget is no longer able to regard the costs of such operations as incidental.
All of this raises the question of whether the decision-makers in the Department of Finance know enough to make informed decisions about defence matters. It seems likely that they are trapped in a very old-fashioned perspective of what the armed forces are meant to do.
If the South African Government and the South African public as a whole want to be serious about peacekeeping and national defence at the same time, they will have to take stock of what it will cost adequately to fund and equip the SANDF. If the current trend continues, in a few years South Africa's armed forces will be in no position to patrol its oceans, airspace and borders, or to conduct much needed stabilisation operations on the rest of the continent. What the SANDF is asking for involves no real sacrifice; the alternative, of steady but sure decay and debilitation is so dangerous as to defy contemplation.
Written by: Anton Kruger, Intern, Peace Missions Programme, ISS, Pretoria